On March 26, 1965 — the day after the famous second march from Selma concluded — Rabbi Maurice Davis issued a special sermon. In it, he shared what he’d witnessed while marching with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other religious leaders.
We returned to the church, and I noticed that all the Reform rabbis were wearing yarmelkes. When I questioned this, I was told, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” Clergymen of every denomination, from Roman Catholicism to Unitarianism were wearing clerical collars to show they were clergymen. Rabbis of all branches of Judaism were wearing yarmelkes.
I tried to get one, but I could not. I learned later that they sent back for a thousand yarmelkes but all the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them. Negro children and white marchers were all sporting yarmelkes.
This particular anecdote is one of several MLK stories attested to in the online JTA Archive. But first person stories preserved from generation to generation are a pillar of a strong Jewish identity.
Two years ago, my colleague Ben Harris recorded video of first person accounts from some longtime Jewish residents of Selma.
"Turns out that while most American Jews were schepping nachas over members of their community thumbing their noses at the white establishment, Selma’s Jews had more immediate concerns to worry about," Harris noted.
Here’s the video from his visit:
Quick plug: If you’re in Philadelphia today, head over to the National Museum of American Jewish History, which is offering free admission until 5:00 p.m. in honor of MLK Day. I got to check the museum out last week and was particularly moved by the civil rights exhibit in the museum, as well as a program from the 1963 rally in Washington,where MLK delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
If you have first person stories to share, email archive_AT_jta_DOT_org, or share them with us on Facebook.